Everyone has those life-defining moments, hardships, or other events that shape them. Mentors use those experiences to help guide others. They pass on what they’ve learned the hard way to make it easier for someone else, so others don’t go through the same struggle.
Jamal Collins is one of those mentors. Born in 1970 and raised in East Cleveland, he uses graphic design to teach life lessons to local inner-city kids from the same area where he grew up. He not only teaches them design related concepts using software such as Photoshop and Adobe Creative Suite, but also what he wished he would have known when he was younger. Furthermore, he wants to impart that they have the power within them to forge their own path and that anything is possible if they take the initiative.
Collins remembers he had a passion for art and drawing as a young child, but his academic struggles meant he was held back in second grade. Not only was he left behind from his peers, but his younger classmates also bullied him for it.
“I was at a point where I was getting physically abused by the teacher because I was disrupting, because I wasn’t connecting,” Collins explains.
Back then, Collins was just trying to make it through and follow a script. Go to school, get a job, buy a house – a path that his hard-working, blue collar parents had followed to provide for the family. He wishes he would have told his parents about his passion for art. His high school offered a commercial arts program and his eyes lit up when he saw they were doing things such as airbrushing jean jackets, but his grades weren’t up to par. Collins didn’t have anybody to help him see the possibilities.
That’s something he wants to make sure his students have in him. Someone to help them navigate life in the pursuit of their own passions and avoid negative distractions.
“I wouldn’t have been focused on ripping and running on the streets, smoking, drinking, chasing girls. I wasn’t focused on design. I was drooling over design, but I wasn’t telling my mother about it,” Collins states. “That was the disconnect I had. Just do school, waiting to be told what to do.”
After high school, Collins made the decision to go to college for graphic design at The University of Akron. He was the first from his family to attend university, but he also found himself struggling academically again. Up to that point, he wasn’t sure how to study and people in his dorm had to show him how to approach learning itself. He was following the script he felt he had to – go to college, build a portfolio, get a job. He did just that by getting a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers after graduating in 1997.
By most accounts, he was already successful, but Collins found himself still unfulfilled and felt like an outsider in the corporate environment. After getting laid off, he freelanced for four to five years to make ends meet. It was in 2015 that he started working with the Boys and Girls Club as an art teacher.
Rather than get discouraged, he persevered. While on the job, he noticed the organization had iMac computers available and suggested that he use those to teach the kids about graphic design. A year later, he was brought on as a teaching consultant and has since expanded his reach into the community with other school programs in the area, as well as doing work with PNC Fairfax Connection.
For Collins, it’s about showing kids that the resources are out there, but they have to do the work to find and exploit the opportunities that exist. He encourages his students to create content, make things, put themselves out there, and not wait for opportunity to come knocking. He teaches lessons about business, marketing, and branding, while also holding discussions on social issues to empower them, rather than feel stuck, like he once did.
“I can upload some images for a hoodie and sell it with PayPal. I don’t need permission. All I need my mother to do is hook the PayPal up to a bank account that’s it,” Collins says. “Just try to do it and see where it takes you. I need an LLC. I can look that up. What is an S-Corp? What is this? What is that? This information is so readily available I can make my own career. Using design as a way to change youth behavior and give them a winning mindset.”
Collins’ goal is to keep honing his message and further engage students beyond their time with him in the classroom. Unleashing his own potential to help others unlock theirs is Collins’ model. He recognizes you only know what you know. The realization that there’s always more to learn and going after it? That’s the key.